House of Strangers

Back in 2015 I looked at Broken Lance, a superior western and a remake of an earlier movie. I remarked at the time that I preferred the later version of the story and that’s still the case. Nevertheless, House of Strangers (1949), the original adaptation of Jerome Weidman’s novel, is an excellent piece of work when viewed in its own right. All versions and adaptations of stories bring something different to the table: the sensibilities of the filmmakers involved, themes added or removed, highlighted or suppressed. Where Broken Lance broadened and extended the scope of the material, House of Strangers retains a tighter focus overall.

A crowded sidewalk, bustling and bursting with life, and amid it all the eye is drawn to one solitary figure making his way through the vibrant mass, a detached and determined figure. He pauses before the imposing facade of a bank, the guard inside eyeing him fishily through the polished plate glass. This is Max Monetti (Richard Conte), once a sharp and arrogant lawyer but now just another ex-con. Actually, he’s a bit more than that; the bank was once the domain of his late father Gino Monetti (Edward G Robinson) before it was taken over by three of his sons, and before Max spent seven years as a guest of the state for jury tampering. Some of the brashness is still there though, and it’s enough to worry his siblings. It’s here that the lengthy flashback which occupies most the running time kicks in, showing how a family turned upon itself and slowly disintegrated, how rivalry and dissatisfaction became the seeds of hatred, how an old woman’s heart was broken and how a once grand home was transformed into a mausoleum to pernicious pride.

As in the image above, the past is forever peering over the shoulders of the characters. And it’s not just the malign spirit of Gino Monetti haunting his sons and poisoning their hearts, for even the old man in life was haunted by the specter of penury and subservience. The whole movie concerns itself with characters racing to keep a step ahead of their past, be it the stifling “old world” traditions that Gino professes to be desperate to throw off while apparently reveling in their trappings or another generation’s desire to be free of the too firm hold of an overcritical patriarch. Underpinning all of this is the concept of revenge or retribution, and the corrosive effect it has for all who drink from that particular cup.

I opened by speaking of a narrower focus, and I feel House of Strangers actively seeks to present a sense of restrictiveness. Instead of showing family as a symbol of fertility, it offers up a view of a stagnant and suffocating household, and I think it’s no coincidence that much of the action is rooted in the Monetti house and the old bank. Both structures have an old-fashioned ambience, a workplace where the sons are kept firmly in place – literally caged in the case of the elder brother Joe (Luther Adler) – and with limited options, and a home that is almost overpowering in the sheer weight and oppressiveness of its decor. The contrast with the light, spacious and airy apartment of Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), the one person in the movie with an outward-looking perspective, and the one who represents the chance for a clean break with the past and new start on the west coast, is marked and unmistakable.

Susan Hayward’s presence adds much to this movie. Her drive, allure, and most of all her infectious self-confidence represent the best hope of salvation for Richard Conte’s Max. The frank and witty dialogue those two trade is a highlight, giving an edge to their passion and, in Conte’s case, allowing his character to become much more rounded. Joseph L Mankiewicz, who apparently had an uncredited hand in the writing alongside Philip Yordan, was noted for the use of sophisticated dialogue and it’s a real boon in this picture. The visuals and themes are well handled and well realized, but the smartness of the script gives everything extra vigor.

Richard Conte could always be relied on when you needed someone tough and streetwise, and he starts out incredibly sure of himself, unpleasantly so in fact. It’s largely through his interaction with Hayward though that he unbends gradually, looking out instead of in, realizing what to embrace and what to reject. Edward G Robinson plays a man it’s hard to like – even in his more expansive and beneficent moods there’s a shade of self-importance about him. As the story progresses, this latter quality develops, eventually running to bitterness and, ultimately, spite and vindictiveness. With a trio such as Robinson, Hayward and Conte headlining, there’s not a lot of space left for others to make their mark. That said, Luther Adler is subtly impressive, enduring the pettiness and humiliations as he broods and nurtures a deep resentment. In support Paul Valentine and Efrem Zimbalist Jr are the other two browbeaten offspring, while the imposing Hope Emerson seems an unlikely mother to the diminutive Debra Paget.

House of Strangers was released on DVD years ago as part of the Fox Film Noir line and the image is pleasing if not perfect, with a few trailers and a commentary track by Foster Hirsch as supplements. All told, this is the kind of highly polished picture one would expect from 20th Century Fox and Joseph L Mankiewicz. The shift to a western setting allowed Broken Lance to successfully explore other ideas and make it a more satisfying experience. However, I like to examine every movie on its own merits and I feel House of Strangers deserves to be praised for what it is rather than disparaged for what it isn’t.

Canyon Passage

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The western is a genre which, although it’s certainly not the only one, is sometimes accused of being overburdened by clichés.  This is understandable enough; genre pictures by definition have to feature elements that are immediately recognizable to viewers. Canyon Passage (1946) could be said to contain its fair share of these well-worn tropes (crooked financiers, restless wandering types, hostile natives) but part of what raises this film up among the best examples of the genre is the way they are handled. There’s an  air of authenticity about it all, and that filters through into some stock characters and situations, bestowing on them an originality that sets the whole production apart.

While I don’t have any statistics at hand to prove this one way or the other, I reckon it’s safe to say most westerns take place within a rough thirty year period beginning at the outbreak of the Civil War. Sure you’ll get examples set both before and after these dates, but they do appear to be slightly thinner on the ground. Canyon Passage tells a tale of Oregon in 1856, a time of growth and expansion before conflict engulfed the nation. Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) is one of those thrusting, entrepreneurial types, never satisfied with what he has and always on the lookout for new opportunities to add to his fortune. Still, he’s not a greedy or grasping man; his ambition is just an integral part of his character, a restless need to range further and in some ways a reflection of the pioneering spirit of his country. Stuart is a man who is going places in every sense: his business is booming, he’s respected within the community and he’s courting Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc), a beautiful English settler. However, there’s almost always a fly in the ointment, two in this case. The biggest and ugliest comes in the shape of the brutish Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), a muscle-bound giant of a man and an amoral counterpoint to Stuart. A further source of anxiety is George Camrose (Brian Donlevy), the local banker and Stuart’s best friend. Camrose is a compulsive gambler, a dangerous trait in a financier in any circumstances but doubly worrying when he’s caught in a run of spectacularly bad luck. While Camrose attempts a precarious balancing act his fiancée, Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), is increasingly  attracted to Stuart. Granted none of this is making his life any easier, but it pales into relative insignificance in comparison to the physical threat represented by Bragg. The hulking bully is borderline obsessive in his rivalry with Stuart, further enraged and embittered by his knowledge that his foe had (and passed up) the opportunity to see him hang. Fueled by hate and frustration, Bragg gives in to his animal instincts and thus imperils not only Stuart but the whole community when his base behavior sparks off a tragic Indian uprising.

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Adapted from a novel by prolific western author Ernest Haycox (Stagecoach, Union Pacific, Bugles in the Afternoon, Man in the Saddle etc) Canyon Passage was the first foray into the genre for director Jacques Tourneur. The versatile Frenchman took to westerns right from the beginning, crafting an intimate portrait of frontier society that comes close to the affectionate and mythic vision of John Ford. Cameraman Edward Cronjager captured some truly beautiful and breathtaking Technicolor images that Tourneur then directed with an expert touch. The sequence of the cabin raising is an ode to communal effort and gives a real sense of how inextricably linked the lives of these people were to those of their neighbours. Everything in the movie – the texture of the buildings, the condition of the streets, the language and attitudes of the characters – smacks of a realism that isn’t always present. However, the movie is more than a celebration of pioneering spirit and the social dynamic of the time. Above all, Tourneur was a master of atmosphere and an extraordinarily subtle, understated director. There is plenty of rousing action accompanying the narrative, and again the authentic feel comes across in the depiction of the violence. No doubt Tourneur’s experience working in Val Lewton’s horror unit at RKO shaped his approach to filming the more horrific scenes. There is very little explicit violence shown on screen, the director preferring to cut away or obscure the more visceral moments. Yet the effect, as was the case in those Lewton movies, is to force the viewer’s imagination to take over. In my opinion anyway, having to visualize the acts just off screen is more unsettling than seeing some unconvincing mock-up.

With strong source material and first class people operating behind the cameras, the final vital ingredient is the performers. Dana Andrews produced another of those deceptively quiet turns as Logan Stuart. Initially, you’d be forgiven for thinking this man was no more than a hard-nosed and pragmatic businessman. However, as the story progresses, Andrews, as he so often did, reveals new layers to the character. His early scenes with Patricia Roc hint at a tenderness of heart not apparent from his stoic visage, and this aspect is further developed as his relationship with Hayward grows. But really it’s his loyalty to Donlevy that proves how deep his humanity runs. Although Donlevy was of course a great heavy in countless movies, I wouldn’t actually class his George Camrose as a fully fledged villain. Despite some thoroughly reprehensible behavior, Donlevy brought a weakness and frailty to the role, a touch of corrupt romanticism if you like, which helps explain why Andrews stuck by him all the way. No, the real bad guy here comes courtesy of Ward Bond’s portrayal of the monstrous Honey Bragg. Bond did a fantastic job in capturing the physical power, the depravity and animal cunning of this figure. The two main female roles – those of Patricia Roc and Susan Hayward – are careful studies of contrasting women. Roc had the right kind of brittle gentility for an Englishwoman suddenly thrust into a new and dangerous world; her dazed and distant reaction to the aftermath of the Indian massacres struck just the right tone. Hayward, on the other hand, was feisty, tough and earthy – a true frontier gal. In supporting roles, there is some good work from Lloyd Bridges, Andy Devine, Onslow Stevens, and the wonderful Hoagy Carmichael.

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Canyon Passage is a Universal film, and there are plenty of DVD editions on the market from a variety of territories. I have the version included in Universal’s Classic Western Round-Up Vol. 1 which was released a number of years ago. The film shares disc space with The Texas Rangers but I can’t say I was aware that the presentation suffered from any compression issues. For the most part, the image is very strong with the Technicolor cinematography looking frankly spectacular at times. There are no extra features whatsoever available on the disc, something I think is disappointing as the movie is most certainly deserving of a commentary track at the very least. Regardless of that, this movie remains among one of the very best westerns made in the 1940s. Jacques Tourneur would go on to make a number of high quality pictures in the genre, though I feel this represents him right at the top of his game. There’s a complexity and maturity to the characters and their interactions that help distinguish the movie. Not only would I recommend Canyon Passage to anyone with an interest in westerns, I would go so far as to say it’s essential viewing.

 

 

Rawhide

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No, we’re not talking about the TV series featuring Clint Eastwood and Frankie Laine’s memorable theme song. This is Henry Hathaway’s claustrophobic western from 1951 with Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward. It’s one of those pictures that seems to have fallen through the cracks and is rarely talked about. I think the reason Rawhide doesn’t enjoy a better reputation can be traced to one essential weakness in the script, or more accurately the characterization, which I’ll look at later.

Tom Owens (Power) is a man with a lot to learn; he’s the son of the stagecoach owner and has been sent west to learn the business. With his apprenticeship nearing its end he’s eager to escape the confines of the isolated swing station which he’s been sharing with stationmaster and ‘tutor’ Edgar Buchanan. The first whiff of danger comes with the news that a notorious outlaw called Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) has broken out of prison and has already committed a murder. The first consequence is that Owens now finds himself saddled with task of putting up a disgruntled female passenger (Susan Hayward) and her child, since company policy dictates that the stage can’t carry them in these circumstances. It should come as no surprise that Zimmerman and his men duly arrive and take control of the station. So far this is all fairly standard fare, but the second half of the film really cranks up the tension as Owens has to play a cat and mouse game with Zimmerman to ensure not only his own survival but that of the woman and child also. The real surprise is who comes to dominate proceedings and gains the upper hand in the end.

 

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Susan Hayward was one of those strong women who seemed to dominate the screen effortlessly. From her first appearance in Rawhide, she grabs hold of the viewer’s attention and never lets go until the credits roll. People often use, and indeed overuse, the term powerhouse performance but it’s no exaggeration to say that Hayward delivers one here. She proves herself tough and resourceful enough to be a match for any of the male characters. However, if this is one of the great strengths of the film it’s also the factor that damages it. While it’s no criticism of Hayward, both Power and Marlowe pale in comparison. Power’s character is a weak one from the outset and remains so for the duration. In certain films that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but westerns tend to suffer when the male lead appears ineffectual. There is a similar problem with Hugh Marlowe’s villain, who is a bit colorless and just doesn’t appear to have the steel required to control a band of desperadoes. In fact, Marlowe looks completely out of place in this setting, although he is given a backstory to help explain the cultured nature of Zimmerman. Now, this kind of thing could hamstring a film, but it’s saved by the performances of Zimmerman’s sidekicks, particularly Jack Elam and Dean Jagger. Elam was an actor who was prone to hamming it up and devouring the scenery, and his turn as the depraved Tevis does just that. However, given Marlowe’s shortcomings, this adds some much needed meat to the outlaws’ threats.

Fox put Rawhide out on DVD in R1 last spring in a box which bundled it together with Garden of Evil and The Gunfighter. Typical of much of Fox’s output, the transfer is excellent and the disc has some nice extras, including a short featurette on Susan Hayward and another on the Lone Pine locations. All told,  Rawhide is a fine western with some very tense and genuinely dramatic moments. It’s not quite in the top tier, largely for the reasons I mentioned above, but is well worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time. It’s been suggested to me that there are some similarities to Boetticher’s The Tall T, and I can see where that may be the case. However, the similarities are really only plot points and both the characterization and direction mark them out as quite different films. Having said that, I do think that those who enjoyed Boetticher’s spare tales of tight knit groups in a tense situation would definitely take something positive from Rawhide.

Garden of Evil

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Look at her! Taking four men like us to a mountain of gold.

So says Richard Widmark’s Fisk, and in so doing he about sums up the plot of the movie. In a nutshell, a desperate woman (Susan Hayward) hires four men (Widmark, Gary Cooper, Cameron Mitchell and Victor Mendoza), who are all hanging around a dead-end Mexican town, to accompany her into the badlands on a mission of mercy; her husband is lying trapped in a mine deep in Apache country. What follows is an adventure tale that ties in some weighty themes such as, loyalty, greed, lust and infidelity. There are also some fairly explicit religious-moral allusions with the only features visible in a lava covered town being the church steeple and the entrance to the gold mine. Why, there’s even a crucifixion!

However, the film is never heavy-going and there is more than enough action to satisfy genre fans. The climactic chase and battle with the Apache is especially well-handled by veteran director Henry Hathaway. In fact, the whole thing moves along at a good pace and, at a little over an hour and a half, never outstays its welcome.

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I love these early scope films from Fox, and this a great looking picture. Hathaway makes fine use of the widescreen process to show off the Mexican locations; some of the photography on the high mountain pass is simply stunning. The score is a bit of an unexpected one, by Bernard Herrmann no less. Herrmann, being Hitchcock’s composer of choice, is not a name you’d automatically associate with westerns. Nevertheless, the combination of soaring and ominous tones fits the mood of this movie perfectly.

There is, though, one very odd aspect to this film. Now, I won’t claim to be highly knowledgable of American Indians but the Apache we see here are the strangest looking bunch I’ve ever come across – surely the Apache never had Mohican haircuts!

That aside, I highly recommend this movie. How can you not love a western with Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark. I think both men give excellent performances, although I may be a little biased since I’m a huge fan of Coop. He gets to deliver the last line of the film while squinting into the sunset –

The garden of evil – if the earth was made of gold, I guess men would die for a handful of dirt.

Great stuff!